Second-tier transit investments fall by wayside in Evergreen debate, despite tremendous value for money

The battle between Victoria and  Metro’s mayors over funding for the Evergreen Line is obscuring the cheaper second-tier investments proposed by Translink  that have regional appeal and promise immediate service increases.

Those second-tier investments, particularly in new bus service, would help out thousands of beleaguered commuters. But they are on hold while the Evergreen battle rages.

Metro’s elected officials have been unanimous on the priorities for transit investment since 2009, when both the Mayor’s Council and Metro Vancouver approved a $450 million, 10-year plan.

What’s been missing is agreement on the role of property tax. Victoria has refused to provide new tools — like distance-based insurance, or a share of carbon tax — that could reduce the reliance on property tax.

When the Mayor’s Council approved a Translink board recommendation for minimal spending last year that did not include the Evergreen line funding, Premier Gordon Campbell was not amused. Deadlock followed and a year of investment was lost, although service cuts were minimal.

Fast forward to last month and we saw a new Memorandum of Understanding between Victoria and the Mayors, negotiated by Mayor’s Council Chair Peter Fassbender, of Langley City. Peace had broken out!

The MOU promised the long-awaited discussion on new funding sources. (An unstated quid pro quo was the understanding the Evergreen would now proceed with Mayor’s Council approval of a new supplement.)

The new harmony was shortlived. When Translink unveiled its new funding proposal to a meeting of elected officials on Oct. 7, 100 percent of the cost of Evergreen and new road infrastructure on the North Fraser Perimeter Road was to come from property tax. (Here is a more detailed hand-out from the same meeting.)

Translink has reached its legislative cap on gas tax and believes any further increase in fares would be counterproductive.

Evergreen and the road project would add about $30 to the average tax bill.

But look at the second-tier investment proposals, which would add another $20 to next year’s taxes: major increases in bus service, expansion of beleaguered Skytrain stations and much more.

Those familiar with Fassbender’s talks with Victoria say the Premier was clear: if you don’t come up with the Evergreen money, I have a Plan B. What is Plan B? Perhaps we’ll see.

In the meantime, the Mayors are proposing to move the new funds decision ahead of Evergreen approval. With the provincial government low in the polls and mired in the HST debate, they see an opportunity to change the rules of the game and reduce or eliminate property tax as a transit funding source.

New Translink spending will just have to wait — unless Victoria is serious about Plan B.

In the meantime, line-ups for the B-Line will continue or worsen.